Our country is divided, we all know that, and there have been lies spread throughout the land. Lies of a stolen election perpetrated by a desperate political operator who felt his power slipping away, we know that too. However, we know this as well. We here in this country have an obligation to truth and to stand as guardians of the republic. In a speech he was prepared to give in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963 President Kennedy was to say, “We in this country… are by destiny rather than choice the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility.” Kennedy was assassinated before he could deliver those remarks but they resonate now in our time more than ever before. Let us be worthy of our collective power but let us also recognize what it is we are defending. A sense of optimism and gratitude is needed during a time of such political turbulence. Although our democracy needs tending to, I do believe that it is much more perseverant than what we give it credit for. My claim is that American democracy may have taken a hit, however, it has proven itself to be more resilient than ever before. America experienced a brush with authoritarian populism, at the hands of the Trump presidency, and our democratic institutions still prevailed. The experience was a necessary evil in the sense that it reminded Americans that democracy must not be taken for granted. During those four tumultuous years, the guardrails of our democratic ideology would be tested and pushed to the absolute brink with the final blow occurring on January 6th, 2021. Having said this, I believe it is important to note that the focus of this writing is not centered around Donald Trump. By contrast, it will touch upon the resilience of our democratic institutions and how we can transform them in order to keep them secure.
In “The Many Forms of Populism”, Dani Rodrik states, “Without separation of powers, an independent judiciary, or free media – institutions which all populist autocrats detest – democracy degenerates into the tyranny of those who happen to be currently in power.” I agree with his sentiment, however, I will put an additional entity onto that list. Specifically, the four pivotal institutions that helped our democracy counter authoritarianism: Congress, Freedom of the Press, the Judiciary, and the Federal System. Each of these institutions never lost its power and remained operative throughout Trump’s presidency.
To begin, Speaker Nancy Pelosi experienced no issue whenever she felt called to challenge Trump. For example, the House successfully voted to historically condemn him for his racist tweets against four Democratic lawmakers. The last time the House voted to condemn a sitting president was in 1921 when William Howard Taft tried to interfere with the results of a special senate election. Furthermore, Democrats within the House were able to bring forth articles of impeachment, on two occasions, and faced no obstruction from the Chief Executive or his allies in that process. Then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not make an attempt to stop either of the trials and not once did Trump try to create a policy that would weaken congressional power. Although the House was able to provide some restraint, alterations need to be made within our checks and balances system. Hyper-partisanship has eroded the integrity of the impeachment process which has contributed to our democratic erosion. The founders prepared the framework to experience one rogue branch, but not two simultaneously. In an impeachment, the House serves as the prosecutor while the Senate acts as the judge. This process is not democratic if the president on trial has the Senate in their back pocket. The founders did not account for representatives putting party over the country when they had designed the process. Perhaps instead of having the Senate engage in a trial, the second body that convicts and removes the president should be an entity coming from the judicial branch. This brands the impeachment process as something more impartial. What is also interesting to think about is that there is a school of thought proposing “snap” elections take place after an impeachment since the occasion is so rare. This occurred in 2017 when South Korean President Park Geun-Hye was impeached and convicted. An election took place within two months of her removal resulting in the left-leaning president, Moon Jae-in, being elected into office. Perhaps America should alter its rules by having the Vice President and Cabinet exit alongside a convicted president. Snap elections could also lower the hyperpartisanship if members of Congress had to participate in them as well… just a thought.
Going beyond the legislative branch, let’s touch upon the influence of the states themselves. The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution declares, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Spring of 2020 provided states with the opportunity to exercise their constitutional power against Trump. Concerned with overcoming the coronavirus in time for election day, the former president called for the states to reopen early. Democratic governors paid no attention to his demands while even some Republican governors, such as Mike DeWine of Ohio, did not see eye to eye with Trump and kept their states closed. In response to this, Trump threatened to withhold aid based on whether or not states were open. Thankfully, the Tenth Amendment nullified his efforts as it declares a president cannot condition federal aid based on governors complying with the president’s bidding. The barrier between the states and the federal government also remained sturdy when the Trump campaign attempted to overturn the election. Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, was a Trump supporter who certified the election results despite threats coming directly from the former president. In Michigan, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield did not yield to Trump’s orders of obstructing the process of choosing electors. An effort to convince state officials to repeal reality definitely serves as a hit against democracy. The reason why it was able to even progress was not that Trump had the powers of a dictator but because his allies were within statehouses and legislatures. The solution is to further cultivate a revitalized national identity, something powerful enough to keep countering allegiance to a president over the Constitution. Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania, did this by unifying his people through the establishment of a national language. He also created a common narrative of Tanzanians being self-reliant. He insisted that a person who is self-reliant does not exploit other people and at the same time they are not exploitable. As a leader, he worked to liberate his people through the creation of a national identity.
Moving onward, a clear sign of a dictatorship is that it exploits the judiciary in order for the courts to approve of its actions. Ozan O. Varol explains how this is a common tactic engaged in by Vladimir Putin. For the purpose of creating a unified political space, Putin authorized federal courts to nullify regional laws inconsistent with the federal constitution. The elimination of those regional laws allowed Putin to centralize and consolidate his power and reduce the vertical checks on his power by regional governments. In regards to America, Trump discovered that appointing judges does not equate to directing them. Varol stated, “Judicial autonomy can be a double-edged sword for the incumbent regime. Judiciaries may disappoint the leaders that established them or appointed their members.” We experienced that very phenomenon play out in a variety of ways. To start, Trump’s travel ban aimed at Muslim nations had been rejected by the courts multiple times before the administration authored an acceptable version. Then, following the 2020 election, judges appointed by Trump stopped his attempt at rewriting the results. Judge, Stephanos Bibas of the 3rd Circuit stated, “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.” The Trump team engaged in sixty-two lawsuits and won only one. Many Republican judges contributed to his cases being either dropped or ending in loss. Now, the biggest judicial guardrail was the Supreme Court declining to hear Trump’s election challenge cases.
Last but certainly not least we have the media. There is a school of thought that says Trump has created more distrust in media outlets as he would call them things such as the “enemy of the people.” However, the reality is that public trust in mass media fell in 2008 and has remained constant, according to this Gallup poll. In regard to the functions of the media, the press had the freedom to say whatever they wanted about political figures and the state of affairs. Freedom of speech was something that was thankfully never eliminated. In fact, Trump even had press credentials revoked from journalists he personally disliked only for them to be later restored by the courts. Now, the free press can also manifest itself through social media which is one reason why there has been much focus lately on disinformation. Jonathan Haidt dives deeper into disinformation campaigns, in his article “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” Here he explains how Steve Bannon stated the best way he believes to counter the media is to “flood the zone with shit.” This is known as the “Firehose of Falsehood” tactic created by Russian disinformation strategists. The motive behind this plan is to keep Americans confused, disoriented, and angry in order to aid a political agenda. If we are to combat propaganda, social media platforms must do a better job of monitoring lies being passed off as truth. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from accountability which means that posts should be monitored by artificial intelligence. If a post is not in alignment with reality it can still exist, but there has to be some sort of flag that alerts the viewers who see it that its contents are not truthful.